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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Are we too stupid to vote in a referendum?

In between the bowling league scores & the farm auction notices, the local weekly paper The Community Press had an article last weekend about Ontario's recent referendum on MMP representation. It repeated a theme that I've heard a lot since the election: when voters don't vote the way the political intelligentsia think they should, it's because they're either too stupid to understand complex issues, or they haven't been sufficiently "educated".

In my riding (Hastings-Prince Edward), 66% of votes cast supported the status quo, with only 34% favouring the recommended MMP system. The province-wide results were similar. Most people would recognize that as a resounding defeat for MMP, but not MMP supporters. Here's what The Community Press quoted Wilf Day, a regional representative of Fair Vote Canada, saying about the referendum:
  • A public education campaign should have begun last May as soon as the Citizen's Assembly released its report.
  • Elections Ontario representatives didn't quote from or refer to the assembly's report while making public appearances to inform voters. "They were so busy being neutral, they didn't say anything at all".
  • "There is no doubt in my mind that the public was not properly informed. There were voters who were unaware of the referendum, including one who was surprised to be handed a second ballot on election day and another who replied "Conservative" when asked if they had voted for MMP."
  • "I'm not saying everyone that voted in the referendum was uniformed. However, a general public reaction against the MMP proposal would have resulted in more voters casting a ballot. If voters were motivated to reject the referendum there would have been a larger turnout."
  • Day interprets the referendum result to mean "people didn't know what they were voting on."

OK - let's see if I got this straight. A solid rejection by 66% of the voters means that the voters didn't know what they were doing and needed more "education" to arrive at the "correct" decision. Furthermore, Elections Ontario (the non-partisan arms-length organization responsible for the referendum) should not have been strictly neutral on this issue and should have advocated for one side. And, despite the 66% vote against the proposal, the result can be ignored because the overall low voter turnout means that in general, voters weren't "motivated to reject" MMP.

I'm trying to imagine a scenario where Fair Vote Canada and its ilk would have raised the alarm if the results had been reversed. If, under exactly the same circumstances, the referendum had delivered 66% support for MMP, Wilf Day would be giving interviews about the triumph of democracy and the collective wisdom of the voters. Sorry, Wilf - the people have spoken, and two-thirds of them didn't like your half-baked scheme. Get over it.


Anonymous said...

One of the reasons MMP was defeated was thanks to the sheer arrogance of MMP supporters. Nothing turns people off faster than supercilious letters to the editor declaring that those who are against MMP are either in the pay of politicians or too dumb to understand it.

That, if nothing else, helped make up the minds of many of the undecided. If arrogant pseudo-intellectuals were all for it, it had to be a really dumb thing.

For the record, I was generally against MMP from the start. A letter to the editor in our local paper from a lady who assumed that anyone against MMP was either corrupt or had the intelligence of a hamster convinced me I really didn't want to be on her side. And yeah, I understood all the implications of MMP way better than that charming female.

Wilf Day said...

If I may respond, MMP was not my proposal, it was the recommendation of the Citizens' Assembly. After nine months study, public input, and deliberations, they voted 92 to 8 to recommend the model they designed. This doesn't mean voters have to accept it. But when voters randomly chosen, after study, have such a strong consensus, it suggests that the rest of us citizens should have been given the chance to study and discuss it too. Most voters didn't have that chance.

This has now been confirmed by Prof. Fred Cutler's polling research: "if voters had been fully informed . . . our data indicate the result would have been 63 per cent for MMP and 37 per cent for the existing system - exactly the mirror image of the actual outcome."